Mark 10 on Marriage and Divorce (Part 3 of 3)
We have not yet dealt with the heart of Jesus’ teaching, which is his appeal to the Genesis account of creation.
As I concluded yesterday, Jesus’ cultural situation was significantly different than our own. His words don’t fit a culture in which “no fault” divorce makes any sense. The legal mechanism of divorce will vary from culture to culture, but they only exist because people are tragically broken to begin with. WIth his appeal to the Genesis story of creation, Jesus points us to God’s intentions for humankind.
When Jesus asked his inquisitors about what Moses commanded, they pointed to Deuteronomy 24. A more central commandment, Jesus answered, is found at the beginning of the book of Genesis (also considered one of the Books of Moses).
At the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.
Jesus is quoting Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. Genesis is foundational to end-of-marriage discussions precisely because it is foundational to the beginning of marriage. Only when we know what marriage is can we speak intelligently about the end of a marriage.
Male and Female
God made human beings male and female. Not everything about being male and female is built into creation or nature, but some of it is. The procreational aspect of sex certainly is.The nature of the institution of marriage is as well.
God created men and women so that they could come together as one flesh. One flesh is first of all a physical reality, not just in the physical act of intercourse but in the offspring that the physical union produces. Perhaps it is not just a coincidence that Jesus turns his attention to children in Mark 10:13-16. In the marital union, two creatures become one new creature – literally, one flesh.
Even beyond the tragedy of divorce, when Jesus says, “what God has joined together, let not man put asunder,” I cannot help but think of all the “asundering” of little ones whom God has put together in their mothers’ wombs, the “one flesh” that God created out of two. The miracle of life that begins with conception produces a new, complete, distinct human being. Writing of the newly fertilized zygote, Wesley Smith observes:
… this new organism is distinct, for it grows in its own direction. It is human — obviously, given the genetic structure found in the nuclei of its cells. And it is a whole human organism — as opposed to what is functionally a part of a larger whole, such as a cell, tissue, or organ — since this organism has all of the internal resources and active disposition needed to develop itself (himself or herself) to the mature (i.e., adult) stage of a human organism. Given its genetic constitution and epigenetic structure, all this organism needs to develop to the mature stage is what human beings at any stage need, namely, a suitable environment, nutrition, and the absence of injury or disease. So it is a whole human organism — a new human individual — at the earliest stage of his or her development.
The oneness of marriage is God’s work. Jesus says that it is God who joins men and women to become one flesh:
- one physically, in the act of sex and in the children born from it,
- one emotionally and psychologically, in the bonds of affection, comfort and mutual support,
- one economically (a word derived, by the way, from the Greek word for “household”). A man leaves his father and his mother and is united to his wife, creating a new household which provides for the needs of all who live therein.
- one in being, with the marriage creating a new reality that transcends its emotional, economic and physical components.
It is this latter sense of “one flesh” that seems to be foremost in Jesus’ mind. God has created something that exists before him regardless of how I feel about it at the moment or how well it is functioning. As the marriage ritual states, the tokens of marriage are an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, signifying to all the uniting of a man and a woman in this “estate” we call “holy matrimony.”
If marriage were just a matter of human emotions, we could (and do) work through the pain of divorce. If it were just a matter of the children, we could (and do) work to mitigate the impact that divorce and parental absence has on our kids. But as marriage is not merely a human reality, neither is divorce. I am married in the eyes of God.
As we apply Jesus’ words to the world, it’s easier to envision what God wants than what he will tolerate due to human sin and brokenness. As I hear it in Jesus’ teaching, God’s plan for marriage is this: one man and one woman (both nouns are singular in Jesus’ quotation), whom God makes one flesh physically and emotionally, living together in sexual exclusivity and mutual support throughout their lives, and bringing the next generation of human beings into the world. This multidimensional oneness of marriage is God’s creation and not ours to mess with.
A legal path to divorce and, possibly, remarriage is sometimes necessary, but it’s not what God intended when he made the two one. In some ways, the bonds of marriage will never be completely severed. I regularly deal with people who are still dealing with the consequences of marriages or sexual relationship that ended decades ago. And as Jesus made abundantly clear, the legal possibility of divorce exists to protect the innocent, not to give people free reign to indulge their appetites at the expense of their families.
While Jesus applied Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 to the issue of divorce, it also has implications for human life and relationships before, at and after the time of marriage. Sexual conduct produces children, who should be born and nurtured within the economic and emotional safety of a life-long marriage. It also produces emotional and psychological bonds which also belong within the marital union. Violating God’s intentions for marriage too often has devastating consequences on individuals and communities. The church teaches celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage for these practical reasons, but also for the purpose of respecting the God who ordained sex and marriage.
Among God’s people, sexual relations belong within the permanent, exclusive bonds of marriage between a man and woman (although that’s a good idea for society as well). Children born within a marriage – or even simply conceived by the behavior that properly belongs in marriage – should be received with joy.